Bitter Complaints

October 10th, 2021 homily on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Hebrews 4:12-16 by Pastor Galen

Mothers Teresa’s “Crisis of Faith”

In December 1979, Mother Teresa went to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in founding the “Missionaries of Charity” and her 30 years of service (at that point) among the poorest of the poor who were dying of terminal illness and diseas in Calcutta. Along with her service to the poor, Mother Teresa generally displayed cheerfulness and a deep commitment to God in her daily work. She was known for her life of prayer, and as someone who seemed to have a deep and intimate relationship with God.

And yet, in 2007, ten years after Mother Teresa passed away, the world was shocked to discover that for the last 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa had struggled with doubts, and feeling as though God were distant from her. In 1979, for example, less than 3 months prior to receiving her Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa had written to a spiritual confidant, saying “for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see–Listen and do not hear–the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.”

Job’s Bitter Complaints

As shocking as these words may be to us, coming from the lips of someone how was known for her great faith and trust in God, we may be similarly shocked to hear the biblical character Job’s bitter complaints to the Lord in Job chapter 23. Job is usually remembered for his patience and endurance and faithfulness to God even in the midst of great suffering. And yet in Job 23, Job said to his friends, “Oh, that I knew where I might find [God], that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:3-4). 

Like Mother Teresa, Job felt as though God were absent, saying “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9).

The psalmist David, too, who throughout the Bible is called “a man after God’s own heart” (see 1 Sam. 13:14 and Acts 13:22) in Psalm 22 expressed similar sentiments, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Psalm 22:1-2).

What happened to these spiritual heroes of the faith? How could Job and King David and Mother Teresa who were known for their faith in God express such severe doubts? How could they not sense God’s presence with them? Why did they think that God was distant from them?

I want to suggest this morning that for Job, and Mother Teresa and King David, it was actually their strong faith in God that caused them to express their doubts and even to question God when they came face to face with the most severe forms of human suffering. In other words, their expressions of doubt and uncertainty were not a contradiction to their faith, but were in many ways an outgrowth and a natural response and fitting response to the human suffering that they encountered in the world. The difference is that their doubts and questions led them deeper into the heart of God. In the midst of suffering and doubt they ran towards, rather than away from God. They committed their cause to the Lord, and they waited for God to deliver.

God, Where Are You?

How did they get this point? What was it that brought them there?

Well Job, as we saw last week, had lost everything. In one day his children, livestock, and servants, and all of his wealth and possessions were suddenly taken from him. Even his health was affected, as he developed boils all over his body. Last week we saw him sitting in a pile of ashes, miserable and in despair, and even his wife encouraged him to curse God and die.

Job’s initial response was to say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), and “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10). In other words, I came into this world with nothing, and I’m going to leave with nothing, so God has the right to do or to take whatever God wants from me. 

But then, in the following chapters, 3 of Job’s friends come and try to comfort him. At first they sit with him in silence for 7 days, but then finally Job opens up and begins to share in confidence with them how he is really feeling. He says that his suffering is so bad, he wishes he had never been born. 

At this point. Job’s friends step in and start talking, but they essentially make Job feel even worse. They blame Job, saying that surely he must have done something wrong, and that God is punishing him. One says that if Job would just stop sinning then surely God would forgive him and take his troubles away. The other says, no, actually Job probably deserves even more of God’s wrath and judgment than what he received so he should just be happy it’s not worse. 

But all throughout, Job maintains that he is innocent. He has nothing wrong to deserve what he is experiencing. Job believed that God is sovereign, meaning that God is the rightful ruler, the judge and arbiter of the world, who has the authority to intervene in matters of the world, and who will one day bring an end to all suffering and violence and injustice. God is the creator of the universe, the one who made the world and everything in it. And so this leads Job to question, if God created the earth and the sun and moon, and set the stars in their place, then surely God could intervene to prevent human suffering. Surely God could have prevented Job’s family and possessions from being taken from him. 

This this leads him to ask, where is God? And why were all these bad things happening to him? Job believes God is just, but he can’t reconcile God’s justice with what is going on in his life. He’s left with unanswered questions and wishes that he could simply talk to Godface to face and plead his case before the Lord. But God seems distant.

This strong faith in God’s sovereignty and justice and compassion is what led King David and Mother Teresa to ask similar questions. Why didn’t God prevent the deaths of those suffering from HIV, and tuberculosis, and leprosy that Mother Teresa saw on a daily basis? Why didn’t God prevent all of the pain and heartache that King David experienced throughout his life? If God could have prevented all of this from happening, where was God in the midst of this? Why didn’t God intervene? This led David to ask “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

These words of King David are of course the same words that Jesus cried out while hanging on the cross, when he faced his hour of deepest suffering and need. Even Jesus felt the pain of separation from his Father God. Even Jesus wondered where God was, and why God didn’t intervene. Even Jesus felt that God was far from him in the midst of pain and suffering. 

We are in good company, then, if and when we feel this way. When we experience pain and suffering and feel that God is distant, we can be encouraged to know that even Jesus knows what it’s like to feel distant from God. 

In some ways, it would be more worrisome if one were to stare into the face of death or sickness or disease and not feel anger, or sadness, or despair. If those around us were experiencing suffering and we only felt joy, or if we saw someone in need and felt no compassion, that would indeed be a cause for concern. Experiencing doubt, or anger, or frustration towards God in the midst of intense suffering and pain is normal and natural. It is a sign that we are human, a sign that we are in fact, like David, people after God’s own heart, since God too is moved with compassion in the face of pain and suffering and loss. 

The difference, of course, between someone of faith and someone who lacks faith is that the person of faith brings their anger and doubts and questions to God. Job brought his bitter complaints to God when all that he had was taken from him. David cried out to God when people were seeking to take his life. Mother Teresa expressed her doubts to the Lord and to her spiritual confidant. Jesus, hanging on the cross, cried out to God even with his last breaths. 

The faith-filled person is not someone who never doubts. The faith-filled person is someone who brings their doubts and confusion and even their complaints before the Lord.

Faith and Doubt

During my sophomore year in college I experienced a season of intense questions and doubts. I was leading a small group Bible study at the time, and several of the members of my group opened up to me about intense struggles they were going through, and I began to take on their anger, and grief, and confusion. Outwardly it probably seemed to everyone as if I was fine. Our Bible study group loved hanging out together, and we would frequently get together to play games, or to go out for people’s birthdays. As the leader of the group I tried to encourage others in their faith, and I tried to be a listening ear for people who were processing painful and traumatic experiences in their own lives. But inwardly I was filled with questions and doubts.

During that time I began to make it a regular habit to wake up early in the morning and to pray and write in my journal every morning before I had to go to class. I filled pages and pages in my journal with questions to God, wondering what was real and what was true, and why God had allowed the painful and traumatic events to happen in my friends’ lives. I wondered where God was in the midst of all of that, and why God didn’t intervene. Every morning I woke up at 6:30 to pray and read Scripture, but I often felt like God was far away.

I wish I could say that I always felt an assurance of God’s presence, that I always came away from those times of prayer with peace and comfort. I wish I could say that I always felt the joy of the Lord during those times. But the truth is that sometimes I struggled to even know what to say. Sometimes I felt like I was just writing the same words over and over again, like I was stuck in a constant loop. But the most important lesson I learned through all of that time was that I could be honest before the Lord. That I could bring my doubts and uncertainties, my fears and insecurities and worries, my confusion, my suspicions, no matter what it was, I could bring it before God.  Because God knows, and God understands.

Boldly Approach the Throne of Grace

As it says in Hebrews 4:12-16 “before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Heb. 4:13).

In other words, there’s no need to try to hide anything from God, because God already knows what we are thinking and feeling and experiencing anyway. And not in an abstract, hypothetical way. God knows what we are going through because in coming down to this earth to live and die among us, Jesus experienced the same struggles that we experience on a daily basis.

Hebrews 4 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrew 4:15-16).

“Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.” Because Jesus has experienced human suffering, because Jesus even experienced what it was like to feel disconnected from God while he was hanging on the cross, in Jesus we have a great high priest who can empathize with us. We can approach the throne of grace with boldness, and find grace to help us in our time of need. 

So this morning as you look at the world around you, if you see that not all is right with the world, and if your heart is breaking for the brokenness in the world, then you are experiencing the heart of God. And if that brokenness leads you to have doubts, or questions, or worries, or fears, or uncertainties, then you are in good company with the saints who have gone before. You’re in good company with Job, who brought his bitter complaints before the Lord. You’re in good company with King David, who wondered where God was in the midst of his suffering. You’re in good company with Mother Teresa, who struggled to see God in the midst of the human suffering that she witnessed every day. And you’re in good company with Jesus, who cried out My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

And so I encourage us to bring your doubts and uncertainties, your questions and your misgivings, your anger, your bitterness, and lay them before the Lord. Jesus knows what you’re experiencing. He knows and he sees, and he understands. 

And so let us approach the throne of grace with boldness and with courage. Let us bring our questions to the Lord. And let us receive the mercy and grace that Christ offers so freely to all. 

Amen.

Through It All

October 3rd, 2021 homily on Job 1:1, 2:1-10 by Pastor Galen Zook

 A No Good, Very Bad Day

In the 1972 classic children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Alexander knew from the moment he woke up that it was going to be a bad day. Upon awakening, he discovers that the bubble gum that was in his mouth when he fell asleep the night before had gotten stuck in his hair. When he gets out of bed, he trips on his skateboard. In the bathroom, he accidentally drops his favorite sweater into the sink while the water is on. At breakfast, his brothers, Anthony and Nick, find prizes in their breakfast cereal boxes, whereas Alexander only finds cereal in his box. And of course his day only goes downhill from there.

Throughout the book when all of this bad stuff happens, Alexander repeatedly says that he wants to move to Australia because he thinks it would be better there. But his mother reassures him that everyone has bad days, even those who live in Australia. 

Some of us, like Alexander, know what it’s like to have a bad day – or week, or month, or year, or perhaps even decade.  But hopefully none of us have had quite so difficult a time as the biblical character Job.

In Job chapter 1, we see that Job started out with a very good life. He was a wealthy man with many servants and a lot of livestock – 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, and hundreds of oxen and donkeys. He was married, and he and his wife had ten children who were all grown – 7 sons, and 3 daughters. And they all seemed to get along. In fact, they would all take turns hosting these lavish dinner parties, and inviting one another to feast and dine together.

Now, although Job was not an Israelite, he was known for being a good person – wife in Job 1 verse 1 that Job was “blameless and upright,” someone who “feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). And we see one example of why he was known for being righteous, and that is that every time his children would gather together to feast, Job would rise early the next morning and offer sacrifices to God, just in case his children had committed any sins – knowingly or unknowingly, in the midst of their festivities. 

So we have here a righteous man, someone who was not a member of God’s “chosen people,” but he was a caring and loving father who had successfully raised ten children who enjoyed spending time together. And he was very rich – in fact the book of Job says that Job was the greatest of all the people of the east. Unfortunately, Job’s good fortune did not last, and unbeknownst to him, a horrific tragedy was awaiting Job and his family right around the corner. 

Background on the Book of Job

But first, a little bit of background on Job, since we’re going to be diving into Job’s story for the next 4 weeks. The story of Job is written in the style of a fairy tale, or legend. That’s not to say that Job wasn’t a real person – he very well may have been. But the book of Job gives no historic references to let us know when he might have lived, and some of the details seem to be hyperbolic – sort of like some of the parables that Jesus told in the Gospels. But whether or not there was a real-life historical person by the name of Job who experienced the things that happened in this story, or whether it was intended more as a type of parable, the story does communicate truth. And it does so through the use of long philosophical dialogues that take place between Job and his friends surrounding the trouble that Job was experiencing in his life. These philosophical discussions are bookended by brief narratives of what happened before and after the tragic events of Job’s life. 

The central question of the book of Job seems to be, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And in truth, this is a question that is often asked even today. More people point to the problem of evil and suffering as their reason for not believing in God than any other reason — it is not merely a problem, it is the problem. A Barna poll asked, “If you could ask God only one question and you knew [God] would give you an answer, what would you ask?” The most common response was, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” And so the central questions addressed in the book of Job are pertinent and relevant even today. 

Behind the Scenes

After the narrator recounts the wonderful life that Job had, and how wealthy and righteous he was, the scene switches to a heavenly courtroom-type setting, intended to provide a glimpse into what might have been happening behind the scenes – in the spiritual realm – during the events that took place in Job’s life. In the first scene, the heavenly beings (the Hebrew says “sons of God” – but these seem to be angels) present themselves to the Lord, and interestingly enough, Satan – “the accuser” – is there among them. God asks Satan where he’s been, and he answers that he has been “going to and fro on the earth.” (Job 1:7). God asks Satan if he’s noticed God’s servant Job, how upright and honorable he is, and how Job is such a faithful worshipper of God.

Satan responds by saying that of course Job worships God – God has given Job everything he ever could have wanted. Job had no reason not to worship God. Satan ventures to say that if God were to take away everything that Job has, then Job would curse God to God’s face. God says to Satan, “‘Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’” (Job 1:12). And this is where Job’s life comes crashing down around him – and this is also why I really hope that Job was intended as a sort of parable, and that it’s not based on a true story, because the events that took place next were beyond tragic. In one day, Job lost everything. An enemy army came and stole his donkeys and killed the servants. Fire came down from the sky and burned up his sheep and the servants who were watching them. Another enemy army came and stole his camels. But most tragic of all, while his children were gathered together feasting in the elder’s brothers house, a strong wind came and knocked down the house killing every one of Job’s children instantaneously. 

Job, wrongly believing that all of this was initiated by God (rather than Satan), and that it was God who had taken his livelihood and his family from him, said, “‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’” (Job 1:21). In the midst of all of this the narrator tells us that “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). 

Round 2

But it doesn’t stop there. Now we come to chapter 2, which we read this morning, where the heavenly beings once again present themselves before the Lord, and God asks Satan if he notices that Job “still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (Job 2:3). Satan responds that if God were to take away Job’s health, surely then Job would curse God. God once again gives Satan permission to do as he pleases, asking only that Satan spare Job’s life. 

And so Satan inflicts Job with “loathsome sores…from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). Job is so miserable that we see him scraping the sores from his skin and sitting among the ashes. Even Job’s wife suggests that Job should just curse God and let God take his life. But Job responds by saying, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10a). And again the narrator informs us that “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10b).

Lessons from Job

After hearing all that Job went through, it’s really quite astounding that Job did not curse or rail against God. I get frustrated when I can’t find my keys or when I get a parking ticket! And one time when I was in college I got an eye infection that made my head hurt so badly that I was tempted to cry out to God, “God, just take me now!”

Although I hope that none of us have ever had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day nearly as bad as Job’s, many (if not all) of us know what it’s like to lose people who are close to us, and many of us have experienced other significant losses in our lives. In those situations, it’s very easy for us to say, “God why are you doing this to me?” or to ask ourselves, “What did I possibly do to deserve this?”

And yet we see in the case of Job, that Job did nothing to deserve the pain that was inflicted upon him, just as Job had done nothing to deserve the riches that he had been given in the first place. As Job points out, we came into this world with nothing, and we will take nothing with us when we go. Or, as my childhood pastor used to point out, you never see a hearse pulling a u-haul behind it. 

And so we learn from this part of the story, to hold our possessions, and even the people in our lives with open hands, recognizing that we have done nothing to deserve the blessings that we have been given. At the same time, we should not assume that the calamities that have taken place in our lives are because God is out to get us, or because we have done something wrong. The reality (as we’ll see as we go further along in our study of Job during the upcoming weeks) is that many times we will never know why bad things happen. We live in a world where bad things happen, and often there seems to be no rhyme or reason – at least from what we can tell. And in this, the story of Job can be an inspiration to all of us, as we see the ways in which Job maintained his faith in God in the midst of both the good and the bad that he experienced in his life. 

The New Testament author James, whose letter we studied in our previous sermon series, said it this way: “You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). May we too be inspired by Job’s story, to live life with open hands, thanking God for the blessings as well as the trials that we endure. May we learn to see the compassion and mercy of God no matter what we experience in this life.

World Communion Sunday

This morning is World Communion Sunday, when we celebrate our common humanity with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world by partaking in communion together.  Later this morning as we partake together of the communion elements, we’ll be reminded that Jesus knew what it was like to suffer for no wrongdoing of his own. Jesus was mocked, and beaten, and scorned, even though he did nothing to deserve the way he was treated. Jesus knew also what it was like to be hungry. He knew what it was like to lose people who were close to him. He knew what it was like to be tempted by Satan. He knew what it was like to have someone who was close to him betray him, and to have one of his friends deny that he even knew him. 

When we celebrate communion, we are reminded of God’s compassion and mercy, which is offered so freely  to all. We are reminded that there is nothing that we could ever have possibly done to deserve the love and compassion that God showed the world through sending Jesus Christ to give his life for us. 

When we celebrate communion with our brothers and sisters all around the world on this World Communion Sunday, we remember that Christ is present with us no matter where we are, and no matter what we’re going through. And we remember that Christ is especially present among those who are broken, or hurting, those who are hungry or poor. Those who are grieving or mourning. We’re reminded too that If we have material blessings, it is so that we can share with those around the world who are in need. 

And so on this World Communion Sunday, let us be inspired by the patience and endurance of Job. Let us remember that everything we have comes from God – that there is nothing we have done to deserve God’s grace and God’s blessings in our lives. And even in the midst of pain and suffering, may we say along with Job, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Amen.

The Power of Prayer

September 26, 2021 homily on James 5:13-20 by Pastor Galen

More than a Pat Answer

Christians are often known, for better or worse, for the pat answers that we often give in the face of pain and suffering. When someone endures unimaginable tragedy, one of the things religious folks often say is, “everything happens for a reason.” When there’s a major natural disaster in the world, we say things like, “well God is in control.” When someone is feeling lonely or discouraged, we say “You’re not alone. God is with you.”

Now while those statements may be true and can sometimes offer some measure of comfort, they often come across as insensitive rather than caring, and out of touch with the painful reality that the other person is experiencing.

And so when I first read James’s statements here in chapter 5, they sort of sounded a little bit like that to me. James asks, “Are you suffering? Pray! Are you happy? Sing songs of joy! Are you sick? Ask people to pray for you.” On the surface, James’s statements here sound overly simplistic and somewhat dismissive.

But rather than being dismissive or condescending or out of touch, I want to suggest that James is very much in touch with reality – but it is a reality that many of us often overlook or neglect. And that is the enormous power of prayer. 

And James is not out of touch with the realities of pain and suffering that we experience in this life either. Earlier in chapter 5, for example, James has been talking about wealth and power, and injustice and oppression. James delivered a scathing rebuke to those who gained wealth through unjust means, saying, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). James was in touch with the realities and the plight of the poor and oppressed, and delivered a stark warning to those with resources.

James then turned his attention to those who were the victims of oppression and suffering, encouraging them to look to the Lord, to be patient, and to wait for God to act. God is the ultimate judge and will in time bring an end to evil and pain and injustice. And so we can look to the Lord for our strength and our hope.

James was very much in touch with the painful realities of injustice and oppression in his day, and the fact that those on the margins, and the reality that those who are the most poor in any society are also the most vulnerable to sickness and pain and tragedy. When a natural disaster strikes, those with the least resources are disproportionately affected more than those with wealth and power. When people who are poor get sick, they not only have the less access to good medical care, but their employment and wages are often less secure, and even taking a day or two off work to recover from a sickness or illness can mean that someone doesn’t have enough money to pay their bills. This is why the current COVID crisis in which we’re in has disproportionately impacted  those with the least resources. This is why those of us who have access to good medical care, whose jobs are secure even when we take a day off work, need to be extra vigilant to make sure that we are doing everything within our power to look out for those who are the most vulnerable economically and at-risk medically in our society.

James knew these realities. And so when James encourages those who are suffering to pray and those who are sick to ask for the elders of the church to pray for them, this is not a non sequitur – all of this is very much connected in James’s mind. Sickness and pain and suffering are inextricably linked to issues of power and wealth and economics. James is very much attuned the physical realities of those who were suffering.

But James is also very much in touch with a spiritual reality that many of us fail to grasp – the power of prayer. In directing us to pray, James is pointing us to the most powerful resource available to us as human beings. Prayer is powerful, because the God to whom we pray is powerful. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 124:8, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” If God created the entire universe, then surely our problems are not too big for God to solve. Prayer is powerful, because the God we pray to is powerful.

More than a Last Resort

But the reality is that most of us see prayer as a last resort. We have the attitude that we will try our best, and leave the rest to God. We’ll pray if and only if all else fails.  And we offer to pray for others only when we can’t think of anything better or more “useful” to offer. We look down at our feet when we can’t think of what else to say, and we say half-heartedly, “well I’ll be praying for you.” We feel ashamed and wish there was something more we could do.

But we see in Scripture that prayer is in fact one of the most important and significant things we can do, because God does indeed answer prayer. James uses the example of Elijah – a prophet sent by God – who was called to speak truth to power. When the king refused to listen, Elijah prayed to God, and it didn’t rain for 3.5 years. When the king finally agreed to listen to what God had to say, Elijah prayed again, and sure enough God sent rain to the earth.

Throughout Scripture, we see time and time again God hear and answers the prayers of those who cry out to God. In the book of Exodus, God heard the cries of the Israelites and sent Moses to free them from captivity in Egypt. God answered the prayers of Hannah, who longed to have a child. God answered the prayers of Jonah in the belly of the whale, Joseph when he was incarcerated, Esther when her people were about to be destroyed, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were thrown into the fiery furnace, and Ruth when she and Naomi came to Israel as widows and immigrants in need of protection and provision. 

Time and time again, throughout Scripture, people prayed, and God answered. Prayer is important for another reason as well. Prayer is important not only because God answers, but because when we pray we gain necessary perspective. Prayer is not just talking to God – prayer also involves listening. When we pray, we open ourselves up to hear God’s still small voice speaking to us.

Prayer Is 2-Way Communication

3 year ago when I was asked to become the pastor of Hampden UMC, I was excited about the opportunity. Many of you know that I had been doing campus ministry for 13 years prior to that and had felt God calling me to church ministry. And so in many ways this felt like an answer to prayer, but there was something holding me back. The district superintendent encouraged me to take 48 hours to pray on it. 

During that time I walked around the neighborhood, and I cried out to God. I laid out all my worries and fears and concerns to the Lord, and as I walked and prayed and cried I felt God beginning to give me new eyes to see the community in a way that I had never seen it before. I had been to Hampden on several occasions. I’d seen the Christmas lights on 34th Street, I had been to some of the eateries on the avenue, and I knew some people who came to the skatepark. But I had never asked God to give me eyes to see how God saw the neighborhood.

As I walked around the neighborhood I began to see the neighborhood through a whole new lens. I passed by people that reminded me of the many college students I had worked with over the years – people who said that they were interested in spirituality but not in organized religion. I began to see people who were obviously facing addictions and struggles and hard times. I saw people who were in need of encouragement and love, people who needed to know that God loves them.

I still wasn’t feeling quite settled and so I began to pray some more, and I began to realize that what was holding me back was fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to succeed, fear that I would make mistakes, fear that me and my family wouldn’t be welcomed and accepted. God began to reorient my heart and perspective away from myself and towards God. And God began to impress upon my heart that I needed to trust in God’s faithfulness and goodness and power. That I needed to open myself up to do what God was calling me to do, and that if I did that, God would take care of the rest. And so eventually I said yes.

And so rather than defining prayer as “talking to God” – I’d like to encourage us to think of prayer as “talking things out with God.” Say whatever is on your heart, but then take time to listen for what God might have to say to you. Allow God to change your heart and mind. Prayer is an essential and powerful tool – not only because God acts in response to our prayers, but also because when we connect with God in prayer we become more aligned with God’s will.

Some Qualifiers

But James does provide some qualifiers here regarding prayer”

  1. First, in verse 15, James refers to “the prayer of faith.” Faith is not just intellectual belief. The root of faith is faithfulness, and it entails loyalty and commitment. It involves submitting ourselves completely to the Lordship and sovereign reign of God.
  1. Secondly, we are to pray “in the name of the Lord.” This is significant, because it matters who we pray to. I had a student tell me he prays, but he doesn’t believe in God. I asked who he prays to, and he said he just sort of looks within himself. Now while I believe that that sort of meditation can be beneficial and may yield positive psychological benefits, the type of prayer that James is talking about here is a two-way communication with God – the creator of the universe.
  1. James points out here in verse 16 the importance of confession, and repentance. James says that we should confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed. This is not to say that sickness is a direct result of unconfessed sin, as some might believe. But there is a way in which physical and spiritual healing go hand in hand. Unconfessed sin, and bitterness, and envy, and even worry, can indeed tear us up on the inside. Many of the scars that we carry are not on the outside, but rather on the inside. All of us have hurt others, and we’ve all been hurt by others. And so James encourages us to confess our sins to one another, and to pray for one another, so that we may be healed. 
  1. And lastly, James talks about the prayer of “the righteous person” being powerful and effective. Remember that righteousness and justice are the same word.  In James 4:3, James said, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” James is suggesting that sometimes we do not get what we pray for because our motives are wrong. Our prayers are self-centered rather than God-centered. We want our will to be done, rather than God’s will, and so we pray for the wrong things. This is not the type of prayer that God honors. 

Prayer is indeed a powerful and effective tool if and when it is wielded by someone who has fully given themselves to Christ, who is seeking to align themself with God’s will, who has confessed their sins to God and to one another, and who is truly open to God’s guidance and direction in their lives. 

The reality is that none of us are perfect. We all struggle with wrong motivations and often we have wrong intentions. But James encourages us to go to God in prayer first and foremost – before seeking to act on our own – because when we do so, we give God the opportunity to redirect our steps – to help us get back on the right path, to go in the right direction. When we pray first – rather than as a last resort – we save ourselves and others a lot of pain and sorrow and suffering. 

And so rather than being a pat answer, James’s statement that we should pray and praise and ask others to pray for us is a pattern and template that is very much in touch with the pain and reality of the world, and also helps us tap into the immense and enormous power of God. 

Prayer – when it comes from someone who is seeking to live a life of righteousness and justice, is a powerful tool in the fight to end oppression and violence and injustice. Prayer, when it comes from someone who has fully submitted themselves to God, is the most powerful tool we can wield. Prayer does not excuse us from work. Prayer and work go hand in hand. But prayer is not a last resort – it is indeed our first line of defense, and the most necessary and critical thing we can do if we want to be people who make a difference in this world and in the lives of one another. Amen.

A Harvest of Righteousness

September 19, 2021 homily on Psalm 1; James 3:13 – 4:8a by Pastor Galen

“And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

Dealing with Weeds

I am sort of a “wannabe” gardener. I really enjoy two aspects of gardening – planting and harvesting. I love going to the garden store with my daughters and picking out plants or seeds. I love digging the holes in the ground and planting the seeds and little plants in the ground. I love that feeling of being connected to the earth. And I love harvesting. Mostly I’ve been successful at growing herbs – and it’s really fun to be able to pluck the basil or oregano right off the plant and add it to dishes that I’m cooking. 

But what I don’t love is probably one of the most important parts of gardening – and that’s pulling out the weeds. Weeding feels like an endless, ongoing task, because unless you’re able to pull out the weeds at the roots, they will just keep growing back. 

“Full of Mercy and Good Fruits”

At the end of James chapter 3, James uses images of planting and harvesting, and he imagines our lives and our relationships as a lush garden. James has been talking about living lives that are marked by gentleness and wisdom and good works. In verse 17, he says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (James 3:17). And then in verse 18 he says, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:18). 

Isn’t that beautiful? “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” In other words, if we plant seeds of peace – or kindness, which we talked about last week – then we’ll have a harvest of righteousness. Keep in mind here that “righteousness” in the Bible is the same word as “justice.” It’s a state of “rightness.” We often talk about righteousness in regards to our relationship with God, and we usually think of justice more in terms of society, but in reality they go hand in hand. And James says that if we sow seeds of peace – or in other words, if we pray and work for the things that create peace in our world, then we will reap a beautiful harvest of righteousness and justice. 

Here James is drawing from the imagery of Psalm 1, where the Psalmist talked about those who delight in the LORD, and how “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3). 

The Roots of Conflict

But before we can have this harvest of righteousness or justice, we have to deal with weeds – the conflicts that arise naturally in our relationships with one another. And just like weeds need to be pulled out at the roots, James would suggest that the best way to deal with conflict is to get at the root – the underlying causes. Rather than just sort of trying to manage conflict, James would have us deal with the underlying heart motivations that created the conflict in the first place. 

James says in chapter 3 verse 16, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And he goes on to say in chapter 4 verse 1, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (James 4:1). 

In other words, if we don’t have peace with ourselves, when we’re not satisfied with the things we have, and when we allow envy and selfish ambition to grow and fester in our hearts, it’s going to sprout up into full-blown weeds – full-blown conflict. James goes on to use even more harsh language, saying “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:2) 

Selfishness, envy, and selfish ambition create conflicts that if left to grow will eventually kill our relationships. 

The Heart of the Matter

17 years ago, when my wife and I were preparing to be married, we met with our pastors Matt and Elita for premarital counseling. Matt and Elita are a wonderful couple who were a bit older than us and had quite a few years of marital experience. And as we met with them in the months leading up to our wedding, one of the main things we talked about was how we would engage in the natural conflicts that would arise in our marriage. And I remember them saying that we didn’t need to try to avoid conflicts, but rather that we needed to pay attention to the root causes of our conflicts. We needed to deal with the heart of the matter. 

One practical piece of advice they gave us was that when we had a disagreement or a fight, we needed to talk about how what the other person said made us feel. And so they had us practice saying things like, “When you said _________, it made me feel __________.” 

Early on in our marriage we had conflict, because when I would get home from work, I thought it would be great if my wife came and met me at the door to welcome me home and ask me how my day was. We had a big argument about that. But later one we came back and dealt with how what we had each said made the other person feel. I acknowledged that I felt like my wife didn’t really care about me that deeply, since it seemed to me that she barely looked up from her computer to acknowledge my presence. My wife, on the other hand, felt like I didn’t acknowledge the value and validity of her work, since she was often right in the middle of working on her computer when I got home, and she was indeed trying to finish up her work as quickly as possible so that we could spend more quality time together later on. 

Admitting how we each felt, and getting to more of the root causes underlying our conflicts has gone a long way in helping us not only deal with conflict, but even more so to grow together as individuals and as a couple.  Whether in our relationships with our spouses, or children or friends, or family members, we need to try to get to the root of our conflicts.

A Church Torn Apart

But of course when James was writing this letter, he wasn’t only talking about those conflicts that arise between husbands and wives, or between friends or family members. He was also talking about the conflicts that arise within congregations and churches and denominations. If we allow selfish ambition and envy and covetousness take root in these structures, and remain and grow, it can cause wide devastation and hurt and harm.

Remember that James was writing this letter to Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the known world at the time. And remember that James, who was the younger half-brother of Jesus, had gained a level of prominence in the church in Jerusalem after Jesus had died and resurrected and ascended into heaven.

During James’s leadership, the Church was embroiled in a bitter dispute that was threatening to split the Church right down the middle. And this dispute was an incredibly significant conflict that would forever change the history of the Christian Church as we know it. And the conflict had to do with who identity, and inclusion — namely who was “in” and who was “out.” The conflict at that time centered around whether Gentiles – or in other words, anyone who wasn’t ethnically Jewish – could be included as full members and leaders of the body of Christ, or did they have to become Jewish first? And although this might seem like a nonsensical question to us today since probably most of us do not have Jewish backgrounds, this was a bitter conflict that was threatening to tear the church apart. 

If all of this sounds familiar, you might remember that we talked about this same conflict in our previous sermon series on the book of Ephesians – where the Apostle Paul was writing to the Gentiles who were being marginalized and excluded, and told that they were not “chosen” by God because they weren’t Jewish. There we saw Paul reassure them that they had indeed been chosen by God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and that they were fully members of God’s family.

But here James is writing to those who were in the majority group – those Jewish Christians who were the ones doing the excluding by nature of making it difficult for Gentiles to become members of the Church, by asking them to adopt all of the Jewish laws and customs – including the most obscure cultural customs, which the Jewish believers weren’t even following as the the Apostle Peter acknowledges in Acts chapter 15.

James was chosen to lead the church in Jerusalem, not only because of his relationship to Jesus, but even more so because he was known for his wisdom and deep and profound life of prayer. And James knew that it wasn’t enough to pretend that cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles didn’t exist. He knew it wasn’t wise to just say “let’s put aside our differences and move on.” Instead James wanted to get at the source of the conflict, and to pull it out by the roots.

In Acts 15, where all of this conflict comes to a head, James and the other apostles spend time listening to testimonies of how God’s spirit was moving among the Gentiles. And after much prayer and discernment, James delivers the official proclamation on behalf of the Apostles, saying that they  “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). He writes to the Gentile believers acknowledging the pain they had undergone from those who tried to impose unnecessary burdens on them. James reassures them of their full inclusion in the Body of Christ, humbly asking only that they keep the very basic tenants of the Mosaic law that were deemed universal to everyone in the world.

And then to the Jewish Christians, James writes this letter, the one we’re currently reading, in which calls on those who were causing the conflict or who were benefiting from the marginalization of Gentile believers, and he challenges them to take a deep look at their internal heart motivations, to confess their sinfulness and wickedness, pulling out those weeds at the root. In chapter 4:4-6, James uses even more harsh language towards those who had been letting envy and rivalry grow and fester in their hearts, saying “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). And he exhorts them and all of us, saying, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8). 

Only then – when we’ve submitted ourselves fully to God, when we’ve drawn near to God – can we bear fruit that will last. Only when we truly work for the things that make for peace and root out the causes of conflict in our midst, only then can we reap a harvest of righteousness and justice. 

The Example of Jesus

How did James become so wise? How did he know that to deal with conflicts you have to get at the root? How did he know that you have to look beyond the external conflicts and deal with the internal motivations of envy, and covetousness, and selfish motivations? He learned it from his older brother, Jesus! 

During his time here on this earth, Jesus didn’t just teach us to be nice to each other. He didn’t just teach us to get along and pretend like everything is fine. Jesus spent his time here on this earth attacking the weeds. He addresses internal heart motivations. He criticized the Pharisees and other religious leaders who put up a facade of righteousness, but inside they were filled with anger and malice and greed. And ultimately Jesus died on the cross to deal with the root causes of sin. Jesus literally gave his life for us – dying in our place – taking the punishment that should have been ours – in order to defeat sin and death once and for all. 

James saw the example that Jesus set, how he humbled himself and gave his life. How Jesus dealt with the root causes of conflict – selfishness and envy and selfish ambition. And James’s letter challenges and encourages us to do the same.

Drawn Near to God

It’s no secret that the Church today is embroiled with bitter conflicts, not too different from the conflict in James’s day. Today Gentiles (such as me and probably most of you) are fully included in the Church because of the landmark decision made by James and the other apostles. But today we’re still wrestling with different questions over identity and inclusion. Whether or not LGBTQ individuals can be fully included in the life of the church – including in positions of leadership. And we’re embroiled in debates around race and culture and ethnicity and politics and justice. The conflicts and divisions within the Church often fall along the same lines as those within the society at large. We’re divided between Red and Blue states, urban and rural churches and areas, Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans. 

But whereas our society often preaches a message of tolerance -saying, “why can’t we all just get along?” here in the Church we are called to deal with root causes and motivations. James, following the pattern of Jesus, would teach us to take a look at our internal motivations and to deal with the root causes of those divisions. Only then – only when we deal with the heart of the matter, can we bear fruit that will last. And when we pull out the weeds can we bring forth a harvest of righteousness and justice. Amen.

Taming the Tongue

9.12.21 homily on James 3:1-12 by Pastor Galen

When I was learning how to drive a car, I remember thinking to myself that driving was nothing like I had imagined. My main experience with “driving” prior to that had been bumper cars at the amusement park, go-karts, and video games.

But driving a real vehicle was a completely different experience altogether. Something about the weight of the vehicle, and the fact that the steering wheel, which is such a disproportionately small part of the vehicle, could turn this rather huge piece of machinery without hardly any effort at all. I remember driving down the highway, and being in awe that even the slightest movement of the steering wheel could cause this 2 ton vehicle to move into the other lane. I remember thinking about how much of a responsibility it was and is to drive such a heavy piece of machinery and how even just a slight movement or mistake could have a destructive impact on myself and others. 

In James chapter 3, James uses similar analogies of the technology of his day. Rudders on ships were relatively small pieces of wood on the bottom of the boat that were connected to the helm or steering wheel of the ship – and the direction of the rudder determined the direction of the ship – such that the pilot can turn the ship in whatever direction they wanted. Bits were small pieces of metal placed in horse’s mouths, connected to the reins, that could cause a strong workhorse to change direction.

And James says that our tongue is sort of like that. Our tongues and our vocal chords are relatively small and seemingly insignificant parts of our body and yet there’s incredible power there, because our tongues and the words they produce have the power to change the course and direction of our lives. If we’re not careful, the words we speak can break us or other people. Our words have incredible power to do terrible devastation.

Think of someone who spreads rumors about someone else – or who slanders someone else or spreads misinformation. Our words can be as destructive as a wildfire, lit by a seemingly innocent little spark but that grows into a blazing fire that consumes and destroys. Our words can cause untold harm to ourselves and others. Think of political candidates who say racial slurs and effectively kill their political careers. Think of a judge, who sentences someone wrongly because someone else has lied under oath. Think of someone who has been verbally abused or bullied, or who has been repeatedly told that they’re not worthy enough, or good enough, or that they’ll never amount to anything. Think about how those words can destroy someone’s life.

Our words have power to destroy, and to tear down. Words can be devastating. We have to be careful with the words we say.

Type, Text, and Tweet

Of course if James were writing today, he would probably also want to talk about the words that we type, or the things we text, tweet, or post on social media. These words have just as much power. James was writing in a period of time when many people didn’t even know how to read or write. They would have been hearing this letter read to them in a church gathering. Most of them did not have access to words in written form. (This is why earlier in James he talked about hearers of the Word, rather than readers of the word – James 1:22).

But today most of us type or tweet or post or text or email almost as much as we speak. The average young adult ages 18 to 24 sends and receives on average 3,853 text messages per month, which works out to over 46,000 text messages per year. And although the average American still probably speaks more words per day than we type, the words that we type can cause as much devastation as the words we speak. 

Rumors and misinformation spread at an even faster pace online than they do in person. Recently a friend of mine jokingly posted on Facebook that it’s so difficult to know what’s true online anymore. He said, “all the scientists and doctors and experts are saying one thing – but my second cousin’s boyfriend who has never studied any of this stuff said something completely different. It’s hard to know who to believe! 

In this age of technology we have greater access to information and data from experts and scientists, but we also have access to more of the thoughts and opinions and conspiracy theories from people who are trying to subvert the truth. Rumors and misinformation have a life of their own. And so we have to be careful what we type, and text – and also what we share. (There have been a lot of posts that I’ve been tempted to share, until I fact-checked them and realized they were completely or at least partially false. We would all do well to spend a couple minutes checking the fact-checking website snopes.com before we reshare any information that may seem too good, or too bad, to be true).

Whether the words come out of our mouths or whether they’re written down on paper or typed or shared on a screen, our words have incredible power to destroy others, and ourselves. It’s hard to erase words once we put them out there into the Twittersphere. 

It starts in the Heart

Of course the words that we say or write or tweet or share originate not in our vocal chords or finger tips, but in our hearts and minds. We generally think before we speak. 

For some of us there may only be a split second between when we think it and say it, while others may plan their words out a lot further in advance. The other day I overheard two of my daughters talking in the back of the car. They were talking about talking, and one of them said, “you know, it’s not that I don’t want to talk. It’s just that I don’t know what to say.” The other daughter said, “Well I talk even if I don’t know what to say!” 

But whether or not you are someone who thinks long and hard before you speak, generally the sentiments that we express have been inside of us for a long time before we ever formulate them into words. And so if we want to be mindful of the words that we say, we have to guard our thoughts. We have to be diligent about rooting out destructive thoughts from our minds if we ever want to avoid destructive words.

Speak Up!

With all of this talk about how words have the power to destroy, we may think that it would be better for us not to speak at all! Not to text or type or tweet at all. Not to say anything, for fear that what we say might be held against us, or that our words might cause hurt or harm or destruction to others.

But while some of us would do well to talk less and listen more, it’s also important to remember that just as words have the power to destroy, they also have the power to heal. Just as words can cause devastation, they can also produce life. In fact, sometimes the best thing to do is to speak, even if we don’t want to. Sometimes not saying anything at all is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Think, for example, of how we are sometimes called to speak for those who don’t have the opportunity to speak. Think about how we are often called to speak words of hope and encouragement to someone who is downtrodden. Think about how someone at some time in your life spoke words that you needed to hear, and how those words encouraged your heart, or lifted your soul. Think about those who have felt called to speak out about injustice, and imagine if they had chosen not to speak? Think about those who have felt called to call out someone who was causing harm to themselves or others, and the boldness and courage that required. Think about what would have happened if they hadn’t spoken up. Think about how many others might have gotten hurt. Think about how when we speak the truth that reveals injustice, it can bring about change. Think about how words can liberate, and bring freedom for ourselves and others. 

Wisdom

Of course, we need wisdom to know what to say and how and when to say it, and who to say it to. (a friend of mine used to joke that: Saying the words “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” usually mean the same thing, but they mean something very different if you say them at a funeral!)

Wisdom is not just knowing facts or data or information. It’s knowing how to apply that data. It’s knowing when to speak up and when to be silent. If words come from our mouths and thoughts come from our minds, wisdom resides in the heart.

And so the psalmist says, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock, and our redeemer. 

What if we were to speak only those words that are pleasing in God’s sight? What if the meditations of our hearts were always acceptable to God? What if we never texted or tweeted or shared or spoke any words unless we knew that they would bring honor and glory to our Lord, our rock and our redeemer? Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” When our words are pleasing to God, we are joining in with all of creation in bringing glory to our Creator.

What i we were to only speak words that were acceptable to God? Some of us would speak less. Others of you would speak more! Most likely there’s some words that each and every one of us would need to remove from our vocabulary. Perhaps there are other words that would need to be added. We might have to come up with new ways of expressing ourselves, new ways of speaking and writing and texting and tweeting the truth in love. New ways of speaking life and hope and encouragement to those around us. 

Some might have to get used to saying words that you never heard spoken to you, or never heard frequently enough. Perhaps words like “I love you.” “you’re beautiful” “You’re wonderful.” “You’re doing a great job, keep it up!” Some of us might need to go home and practice saying these words in the mirror. Some of us might need to say them to our spouses, our children, grandchildren, or other loved ones. All of us would do well to speak more words of hope, and life, and truth and love in more ways, to more people, more often.

In closing, I’d like to share a poem entitled “A Sermon in Rhyme” that encapsulates this message from James chapter 3. This is a poem that was circulated in a number of nineteenth-century newspapers and religious magazines. It was usually published anonymously, though one reprint credits it to “Rev. D. W. Hoyt.” (I have updated some of the pronouns to be more gender inclusive).

A Sermon in Rhyme 

If you have a friend worth loving, Love them. Yes, and let them know

That you love them ere life’s evening Tinge their brow with sunset glow;

Why should good words ne’er be said Of a friend—till they are dead?

If you hear a song that thrills you, Sung by any child of song,

Praise them. Do not let the singer Wait deserved praises long;

Why should one that thrills your heart Lack that joy it may impart?

If you hear a prayer that moves you By its humble pleading tone,

Join it. Do not let the seeker Bow before her God alone;

Why should not your sister share The strength of “two or three” in prayer?

If you see the hot tears falling From a loving brother’s eyes,

Share them, and by sharing, Own your kinship with the skies;

Why should anyone be glad, When her brother’s heart is sad?

If a silver laugh goes rippling Through the sunshine on one’s face,

Share it. ‘Tis the wise one’s saying, For both grief and joy a place;

There’s health and goodness in the mirth In which an honest laugh has birth.

If your work is made more easy By a friendly helping hand,

Say so. Speak out brave and truly, Ere the darkness veil the land.

Should a fellow worker dear Falter for a word of cheer?

Scatter thus your seed of kindness, All enriching as you go—

Leave them, trust the Harvest-Giver; God will make each seed to grow.

So, until its happy end, Your life shall never lack a friend.

Amen!